The 50 companies that own over a million acres of England & Wales

50 companies own over a million acres of England and Wales, according to Land Registry figures seen by Who Owns England.

The figures, disclosed under freedom of information law, show that a few dozen firms – from water utilities and mining corporations to aristocratic estates and offshore companies – own vast swathes of the English and Welsh countryside. The top fifty own 1.3 million acres, or over 3% of the entire land area of England & Wales.

Full details of the 50 firms are in this Google spreadsheet; a summary table is below.

Rank Company name Acreage Company’s activities
1 United Utilities Water Limited 140,124 Water utility
2 Dwr Cymru Cyfyngedig (Welsh Water) 77,975 Water utility
3 Yorkshire Water Services Limited 68,927 Water utility
4 MRH Minerals Limited 67,935 Mining
5 Harworth Estates 67,159 (formerly) Coal mining
6 Severn Trent Water Limited 51,668 Water utility
7 Lafarge 48,557 Mining, cement, aggregates
8 UK Power Networks Services (Contracting) Limited 48,262 Grid
9 L.E.T. Nominees 1 Limited 30,269 Aristocratic estate
10 Gunnerside Estates Limited 27,258 Grouse moor, offshore
11 The Boughton Estates Limited 25,516 Aristocratic estate
12 Cemex UK Operations Limited 25,340 Cement
13 UK Coal Kellingley Limited 25,247 Coal mining
14 Albanwise Limited 22,361 Real estate company
15 Beeswax Farming (Rainbow) Limited 21,891 Farm business
16 Woburn Estate Company Limited 21,474 Aristocratic estate
17 Ramsbury S.a.R.L. 21,373 Offshore estate
18 Northumbrian Water Limited 21,032 Water utility
19 Elveden Estates Limited 20,664 Aristocratic estate
20 Hanson Quarry Products Europe Limited 20,534 Mining
21 Swangrove Estates Limited 20,502 Aristocratic estate
22 Corlands Minerals Limited 20,371 Mining
23 Featherstone Estate Limited 18,119 Grouse moor
24 Ham Nominees Limited 17,908 Aristocratic estate
25 Rathbone Trust Company Limited 17,854 Rathbones act a trustee for families, on whose behalf they hold the legal title to land.
26 Anglian Water Services Limited 17,607 Water utility
27 Mainline Pipelines Limited 17,216 Multi-fuel pipeline company
28 Tata Steel UK Limited 16,692 Steel
29 Wemmergill Estates LLP 16,001 Grouse moor
30 Thames Water Utilities Limited 15,987 Water utility
31 South West Water Limited 15,816 Water utility
32 Weardale Estates Limited 15,523 Grouse moor
33 Peel Estates 15,041 Property, energy, shipping, retail
34 Taylor Wimpey UK Limited 14,684 Housebuilding
35 Knarsdale Estate Limited 14,538 Grouse moor, offshore
36 Arago Limited 14,533 Grouse moor
37 Methley Trustees Limited 14,397 Grouse moor/ aristocratic estate
38 Pencelli Limited 14,209 Military training ground
39 British Gypsum Limited 13,661 Mining
40 Ford & Etal (Trustees) Limited 13,622 Aristocratic estate
41 Strutt & Parker (Farms) Limited 13,463 Farm business
42 Percy Northern Estates Limited 13,193 Aristocratic estate
43 Grimsthorpe & Drummond Castle Trust Limited 12,870 Aristocratic estate
44 Farmcare Trading Limited 12,615 Farm business
45 Badgworthy Land Company Limited 12,526 Hunting society
46 College Valley Estates Limited 12,395 Farm business
47 Rose Chaplet Nominees Limited 12,129 Aristocratic estate?
48 Blankney Estates Limited 11,909 Farm business
49 Tesco Stores Limited 11,743 Supermarket
50 Insite Development Limited 11,411 Real estate company?

Topping the list are three water utilities (a sector explored previously on this blog) – United Utilities, Welsh Water and Yorkshire Water. The two English water firms have previously refused to disclose maps of whey own land. This latest data confirms that they are likely the biggest corporate landowners in England and Wales. In total, eight water companies make it into the top 50 corporate landowners list.

Mining and quarrying firms also feature prominently. MRH Minerals Ltd, fourth in the list, own 67,935 acres in Cumbria, although what quarrying rights it has in a county dominated by the Lake District National Park is unclear. The fifth largest land-owning company is actually an ex-mining firm – Harworth Estates, the property wing of what used to be UK Coal. Its various subsidiaries now own some 67,159 acres of land – much of it presumably still coal-bearing, but, with UK Coal now liquidated and the last deep coal mine closed, the business focuses on real estate development. The French industrial products company Lafarge, seventh in the list, owns over 48,000 acres when its cement, tarmac and aggregates divisions are combined.

One of the UK’s largest grid companies – the distribution network operator UK Power Networks – comes in at number eight, though its substantial landholdings are likely to be made up of many small sites like substations.

Whilst privatised utilities, mining and grid firms dominate the very top of the rankings, the rest of the list is peppered with the private playgrounds of the rich. Tenth spot goes to Gunnerside Estates Ltd, a huge grouse moor estate in the North Pennines owned by an offshore firm registered in the British Virgin Islands that ultimately belongs to billionaire businessman Robert Warren Miller. Indeed, grouse moor estates – also explored before on Who Owns England – make up a large proportion of the list. Others include the Wemmergill Estate (29th in the list) owned by a multi-millionaire former poultry farmer; and the Bollihope Estate, owned by Arago Limited (36th in the list), whose ultimate owner is the Dubai royal family.

They sit alongside other aristocratic land empires like the Lowther & Lonsdale Estate (‘L.E.T. Nominees 1 Limited’) in Cumbria, the Boughton Estates (owned by the Duke of Buccleuch), and the Woburn Estate (the inheritance of the Duke of Bedford). It’s important to note that this list excludes the landholdings of private individuals, as the Land Registry refuses to disclose such information en masse, so many aristocratic estates are not listed. Notable by their absence, for example, are the Duke of Westminster’s huge Grosvenor Estate, and the Duchy of Cornwall, which appears to be registered in the private name of Prince Charles.

Old money also jostles for prominence with the nouveau riche. ‘Beeswax Farming (Rainbow) Ltd’, whilst sounding like a hippie commune, is in fact a huge farm business believed to be owned by billionaire James Dyson, inventor of the Dyson hoover. (In 2015, his estate received £1.5 million in farm subsidies).

Other notable farm businesses on the list include Farmcare Trading Limited, run by the Wellcome Trust, which in 2014 acquired the Cooperative Group’s farms; Strutt & Parker Farms in East Anglia; and the Blankney Estates in Lincolnshire.

The grouse moor estate owners aren’t the only ones using offshore firms to run their landholdings. The Ramsbury Estates, covering some 21,000 acres of Wiltshire surrounding the Savernake Forest, is run by Ramsbury S.a.R.L, registered in Luxembourg. Its ultimate owner is Stefan Persson, the chairman of retail chain H&M.

Peel Estates are an unsurprising appearance in the top 50 – being a huge property empire in the north west, whose secretive owner, John Whittaker, lives away from the public eye on the Isle of Man. Amongst his many property interests are the Manchester Ship Canal and the MediaCityUK complex at Salford. Indeed, though the Land Registry data lists Peel’s many subsidiaries as together owning 15,000 acres, the conglomerate’s own website claims they own some 37,000 acres (15,000 hectares) – so much of this must be registered under different company names.

There are some bizarre surprises in the top fifty, too. The 14,000-acre Pencelli Estate, near the Brecon Beacons, is owned by the Honourable Artillery Company – one of the ‘oldest military organisations in the world’, set up by King Henry VIII, whose charitable purpose remains the “better defence of the realm”. And the obscurely-named Badgworthy Land Company Limited is a hunting society founded in 1926 that has acquired large tracts of Exmoor (something it’s done in competition with the League for Cruel Sports, who have tried to outbid them).

A handful of other notable names complete the list. Taylor Wimpey, one of the largest UK housebuilding firms, own 14,684 acres – a startlingly large area, which raises questions about landbanking by developers, a practice that has drawn much criticism from politicians in recent years. And controversial for different reasons are the landholdings of Tesco, whose vast out-of-town superstore developments are attested to by these numbers, showing they own some 11,743 acres.

The data was disclosed by Land Registry in June 2015 in response to a freedom of information request, so the figures should be accurate to that date.* Subsequent requests for information on “area owned” – Land Registry lingo for its data on acreage – have been refused on the grounds that it is “not held” – despite, of course, having released it previously. They claim that due to effect of “General Boundaries”, exact area owned information is not held.

Sounds like yet another reason to open up the Land Registry to see what info is really kept, and what isn’t.

*If any of the landowners mentioned here wish to contact me to update or correct information on the scale of their landholdings, I will gladly oblige.

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